When Francois Pienaar became
hopelessly addicted to drugs
during his gap year abroad, his
mother was prepared to walk
through fire to save her son, but
even that wasn’t enough . . .
By Rita van den Heever
In March last
bade his family farewell at
Johannesburg’s OR Tambo
Airport, he was alive and well,
with all the dreams of a young
man heading abroad for a gap
His destination: the
Netherlands, where he was
planning to work as an au pair.
Just five months later he
returned, dazed, lost in a
personal hell and fighting for
But sitting next to him
on the plane, her arms around
his shoulders, was his mother,
Lize. She was prepared to do
whatever it would take to save
her son from drug addiction.
17 November 2008: The future
Artist Lize Kruger and her son,
Francois, are in their beautiful
Parktown North home, surrounded
by the large, leafy trees that
shade one of Johannesburg’s
Paintings, some of
them by Lize, adorn the walls and
lovely artwork fills the room. The
house feels calm and safe. And
the bond between mother and
son is obvious.
Lize has always been close
to her three children and after
everything Francois has been
through, mother and son have
grown even closer. Still, this
interview is the first time in
months they’ve been able to sit
down and openly discuss their
The last time they shared
their thoughts and fears
was in July, when Lize
visited her son in Soesterberg, a
small village where he was working
as an au pair. His employers were on
holiday, so Francois and his mom
were free to explore the Netherlands
together. They trawled art galleries,
laughed and chatted about the
meaning of life and Francois’ future.
This holiday together helped to
make up for Francois’ absence at her
wedding in July when Lize married
Fanie, her partner of seven years. “It
was simply too expensive for
Francois to fly home for just a few
days,” Lize says.
But even then she was beginning
to feel the first stirrings of concern.
On one occasion her clever, rational
son had sounded strange and
incoherent on the phone. “And
then there was the time none of
us could get hold of him,” she says.
“I was worried, so I often sent him
information on dagga abuse
knowing he stubbornly believed
dagga was harmless. According to
him it wasn’t a ‘hard core’ drug.”
Lize was all too aware of the
dangers of hard drugs. She’d already
been down the long road of drug
addiction with her eldest daughter,
“Ronelle, who is brilliant
and creative, got hooked on cocaine
and alcohol. She was treated at
a Pretoria rehab centre but she
emerged smarter about drugs –
in the negative sense – than when
she went in.”
Eventually rehab at The
Gap in Ferndale proved successful.
The family had been deeply
affected by Ronelle’s battle – so
much so it gave Lize a false sense
of peace about Francois. He had
supported his sister throughout her
rehabilitation and was well informed
about the effects of drugs – so why,
Lize reasoned, would he expose
himself to the same risks?
Before he went abroad the signs of
her son’s dagga-smoking were there
but his explanations made sense:
“The papers were to roll his own
smokes because cigarettes were
too expensive. His eyes were red
because he’d got to bed late . . .
There was always a valid excuse.”
But the niggling worry persisted.
The troublesome feeling accompanied
her to Holland on 21 July. By
this time she knew her son used
marijuana (dagga) occasionally but
she accepted he had it under control.
In the Netherlands marijuana is
available in certain “coffee shops”
and in this context of social
acceptance Francois insisted Lize
read websites extolling the drug’s
“Soon after I arrived we went
to Amsterdam. I told him I wanted
to smoke a joint with him. ‘I want to
know what you experience,’ I told
him.” They headed for a coffee shop
where Lize smoked her first ever
“It was an extremely unpleasant
experience,” she says. “I felt like
someone with Alzheimer’s – or
what I imagine that would feel like.
I couldn’t think straight. I had the
impression the drug was incredibly
strong. But I could finally make an
informed judgment about dagga
and Francois promised he would
stop using it – after all, he was
Lize is correct in saying the drug
interfered with her brain. One of
dagga’s trademarks is its harmful
effects on the brain, which take six
to 12 months to wear off. And the
more marijuana one uses, the more
damage it causes.
“In spite of my uneasiness
Francois and I spent two special
weeks together and made plans
for when he would return to
South Africa,” Lize says. “He wanted
to study marketing at Northwest
University in Potchefstroom and I
bought him a laptop for his future
On 3 August Lize returned
home feeling relatively relieved.
“Yes, I knew Francois was using
dagga but I was convinced he had
it under control. He was happy
over there. He even jokingly tried
to convince me that we should all
move to the Netherlands.”
But Lize’s world was about to be
shattered. The moment she left,
Francois binged on dagga and
magic mushrooms (or ’shrooms),
which, like LSD, cause hallucinations.
He sent his father an SMS:
“I’m a drug addict and I’m sorry.”
“I called Francois but he made
no sense at all,” his mom continues.
“He usually has a sharp mind but
his thoughts were fragmented. He
talked about dreams and visions
and said incredibly naive things.”
Lize felt as though someone
had kicked her in the gut and
she realised she needed to get
to her son urgently. Two days
after leaving the Netherlands she
threw a toothbrush and clean
underwear into a backpack and
boarded a plane back to Europe.
The next three days were almost
unimaginable. Francois’ life was
unravelling – not only was the
dagga stronger than the type he
was familiar with in South Africa,
he’d also started using magic
mushrooms, freely available in the
Netherlands but no longer legal.
Regular users might take these
hallucinogenic “ ‘shrooms” about
four times a year, but Francois
used the drug six times in five
weeks! Once again he believed
the substance was natural and
What he also didn’t know was
that he’s the kind of person who
is unusually susceptible to drugs.
So the combination of dagga and
’shrooms left him psychotic.
He became mentally ill and his life
was in grave danger.
Lize felt as though she was
moving in a vacuum. She spent
an hour on public transport from
Schiphol airport to her son’s flat.
But when she got there, Francois
wasn’t home. She sat on the stairs
and waited, getting soaked by the
rain. Eventually Lize climbed
through a window.
The flat was in chaos. Only a few
days before she had left it neat
and tidy and had filled the fridge
with food. What she found was
a mess. And Francois was gone.
When he finally arrived he was
aggressive. Suddenly Lize was his
greatest enemy. He asked if she
was able to get angry and she
shot back: “You’ve yet to see me
angry. Why are you asking?”
Francois wasn’t himself. Everything
about him was radically
different from the son she’d left
behind three days earlier.
After a quick look around the
flat, Lize knew his laptop was
missing. “My first thought was
he’d traded it for dagga.”
Then she made a decision.
“You’re coming back to South
Africa with me. No arguments.”
But first he had to retrieve the
laptop, which he said he’d given
to a friend. “Go and get it,” Lize
instructed him. Francois left with
friends and Lize began to prepare
for their departure.
“I washed every scrap of
clothing and checked the sole
of every shoe. We would have to
go through customs and I wanted
to be sure there weren’t any drugs
hidden away. I cleaned the flat
and found a stash of dagga and
smoking paraphernalia. I buried it
all in the garden.
“Then his friends came back
– without Francois or his laptop.
He’d just disappeared.”
Francois’ cellphone was off and
she had no way of reaching him.
She even called the police, for
whom she has nothing but praise.
“They were supportive and they
treated me – and later Francois
– wonderfully. Early on the morning of
8 August they called from Kampen
to say they’d found him.”
When Lize arrived in Kampen
a manic Francois was waiting.
“He was hysterical, crying
and laughing, confused and
aggressive. He spoke about
suicide so often I took his belt
away and put it in my handbag.
He stormed into a shop and
grabbed a beer, then charged
across the street and jumped
onto a train.”
By then Lize herself was in a
state. “I hadn’t eaten and the last
time I’d slept was days before. But
I realised I had to stay in control.”
She made all the arrangements
for their return.
“The night before
we left was a nightmare. He unpacked
everything, looking for
dagga of course. He’d used the
money I’d given him for food and
travel during my last visit to buy
a pair of shoes that cost R5 000.
Every five minutes he wanted
to leave them in the street ‘for
someone who might need them’.”
Francois listens attentively as his
mother speaks. He’s an attractive
young man; seemingly confident
and quick to smile. He takes over
from Lize, telling the story without
“I didn’t just use dagga,” he says.
“Mentally, I also became part of
the dagga culture. I absolutely
believed in the love I was radiating
and how I would help to save the
Books such as those by spiritual
guru Eckhart Tolle, especially A
New Earth, and other inspirational
philosophies were his guidelines.
Tolle writes that the way to
spiritual evolution is through
selfish demands and fears.
“Unfortunately religious and
spiritual reading materials are
interpreted completely incorrectly
by people in Francois’ condition,”
“At times I saw myself as the
reincarnation of Christ,” Francois
explains. “I gave my laptop to
someone who seemed more like
Jesus than me. I also gave away
my watch, wallet and sunglasses.
When my mother insisted I get
the computer back, I went to
Amersfoort to fetch it. I didn’t find
it – but I was convinced I’d found
the Holy Grail instead! I rested in
a coffee shop for a while and
someone gave me a free joint.
I ‘knew’ I was going to save the
world and all those people were
streaming in to see me. After
another free joint I headed for
There were more train trips,
and a bus journey during which
he gave the driver his cellphone.
“There were revelations . . . After
walking for hours I fell asleep on
a yacht in Kampen. I believed I’d
left ‘signs’ everywhere but I also
‘knew’ the Dutch queen wanted
me dead. There were secret codes
for her henchmen on TV, on trucks
– everywhere. Everything had
a meaning. I was led by Robbie
Robertson’s song, Shine Your Light:
The cry of the city like a siren’s
Wailing over the rooftops the
whole night long
But now it’s like living on
Out on the rim, over the line
Always tempting fate like
a game of chance
Never wanna stick around
to the very last dance . . .
Francois was very close to his
Their journey back to South
Africa was a terrifying experience
both mother and son
would prefer to forget.
Lize worried that the airline
wouldn’t allow Francois on a
plane in his psychotic condition.
He stormed into airport
shops and raged at her for
refusing to buy him things.
He unpacked all their hand
luggage in the middle of
walkways or on escalators to
search for dagga.
he wanted to go to The Hague
and Australia and threatened
to blow up the plane and the
airport – not the kind of thing
airport staff take lightly.
At Schiphol airport security
staff helped him to a medical
centre where he was given a
By now Lize was a wreck.
“We hadn’t had much sleep
the night before and we’d got
up early to get to the airport.
All I could persuade
Francois to eat that morning
was a handful of dry Post
Toasties. There was no milk.
He had a mountain of luggage
and I struggled with it alone
because he wasn’t willing
– or able – to help.”
The tranquiliser had worn
off by the time they reached
Heathrow. Francois was
completely unreasonable and
refused to listen. Lize could
communicate with him only
through other people because
at least with strangers he was
polite for a few minutes.
She persuaded the airport
staff to let him sit in their
offices: small spaces seemed
to calm him slightly. She
bought food that the staff
gave to him – his paranoid
delusions led him to believe
his mother was poisoning him.
Francois behaved like
a caged lion on the flight from
London to Johannesburg.
Sympathetic people helped
“A wonderful cabin attendant
organised a row at
the back of the plane for us,
and she helped to handle
Francois. I’ve never prayed so
hard in my life.”
At OR Tambo they searched
Francois and Lize three times.
“The dogs circled us. Francois
looked like he might lose control.
I was worried I’d missed
some drugs somewhere but
eventually we were allowed
Once back in South Africa,
Francois went to live with his
father. He seemed relaxed and
in control. He fooled everyone.
He was admitted to The Gap
and referred to the Sandton
Clinic so his psychosis (the
mental disturbances caused
by the drugs) could be treated.
After a week he was sent
back to The Gap, where, due
to circumstances beyond
Lize’s control, he spent just
But mentally he was far from
stable. His thought patterns
were fragmented and he
was still convinced he was
being followed. After he was
treated by someone who was
completely unqualified, Lize
got Francois to a psychiatrist.
She described the condition
of his brain as “a hailstorm in a
vineyard, leaves everywhere”.
Only psychiatric medication
would ensure that the neurotransmitters
in his brain would
Francois was eventually
allowed to return home. There
were strict conditions: these
included that Lize would
have to monitor him once or
twice a week for dagga and
that he had to know he was
being constantly watched.
He also had to take daily
medication, including an
After three weeks Francois
was responding so well
to the medication that his
psychiatrist was positive no
permanent damage would
remain after the six-month
course of treatment.
Unfortunately, it was at this
critical time that Francois was
weaned off the medication
with the help of a pharmacist
(and not his own psychiatrist),
despite his extremely fragile
“It’s tragic that there were
people who thought there
was nothing wrong with him
and he clung to that illusion,”
“I was raging with frustration
at Francois’ inability to
see ahead. I knew he was in
danger but I was fighting a
Mother and son tackled
the recovery one day at a
time. They knew nothing
could be taken for granted
owing to his fragile state.
Lize armed herself with test
kits and used them to monitor
Francois daily for drug
use. He knew he would never
ever be able to use dagga or
drink alcohol again. Even so,
his eyes were brighter and
he was making plans to start
“I’ve always had a good
relationship with my children,”
Lize says. “But I know I’m
Francois’ mother and not his
best pal. I had to do what was
right for him no matter how
hard it was. It’s sad I didn’t get
the support I’d hoped for.
“I wanted him back: the
child with the laughing
eyes, philosophical attitude,
passionate nature and desire for adventure.
I was obsessed with getting
Francois back to the way he was.”
While talking to Lize and Francois
I become aware of the rare bond
between mother and son. They’re
tender with each other and share
a belief that everything will come
right . . . but in unguarded moments
fear of what the future might hold
creeps into a gesture or voice.
It seems this conversation has
been part of their healing process.
It’s the first time, Lize says later, that
they’ve spoken so openly in each
other’s presence. Without avoiding
the painful facts, they’ve shared their
experiences with YOU Pulse in the
hope that Francois’ story will help just
They want to show young people
that they’re not untouchable or immortal.
That dagga is not harmless.
That this can happen to anyone.
If this, Lize repeats almost like
a mantra, can save just one young
person from addiction . . .
Francois’ battle is far from over but
he knows he’s not alone. The gentle
young man with the sensitive soul
and the strong woman fighting for
her son are braving a mighty
And yes, they say hopefully, they
believe Francois will make a complete
“Cautiously optimistic, that’s what
we are,” Lize says.
They look at each other and
nod. And in that moment, fear is
After this interview and
photo shoot, Lize’s
worst fears were realised. Francois
lapsed into a deep depression and
refused medication or treatment.
“He became more and more
withdrawn and lost touch with
everything around him,” she says.
This is a typical reaction when
medication is stopped prematurely
and too quickly.
Lize tried in vain to get through
to her son and he tried to comfort
her with the words: “Just as people
can’t understand the universe or
the concept of eternity, so you can’t
understand how I feel right now.”
30 November 2008: Worse than
Despite all Lize’s efforts, the
unthinkable happened. On the
night of 30 November 2008
Francois took his life.
In his suicide letter he wrote:
To my family
I know this is the most selfish
thing anyone can do but I am in
hell . . . please try to understand.
I love you so much. I just can’t go
on like this . . .
There are things that are worse
than death . . .
I truly love you all.
At the time of going to press
Lize agreed that her son’s story,
completed when they still shared
hope for his future, should be
Maybe, just maybe, Francois can
still save a life.
What I know now
Lize has the following advice for parents who
are helping their children fight drug addiction:
- Trust your instincts. If you suspect your
child is using drugs, don’t let sweet talk and clever
explanations fool you. Get to the core of the problem.
- Be the parent and stay in control. It
doesn’t matter if your child blames you and rages at
you. This isn’t a popularity contest. If you have to
intervene, do so and don’t let anyone or anything
stop you. Parents who present a united front may be
a child’s only chance of salvation.
- Don’t be naive. Be on your guard if your child
keeps asking for R300 – for petrol, a meal, anything.
That’s the price of a gram of cocaine. (This is how
Lize unknowingly funded her daughter’s addiction.)
- Know the danger zones. During a gap year
young people suddenly find themselves with incredible
freedom, as well as access to money, friends and opportunities
for dangerous games with alcohol and drugs.
They’re young and overconfident and yet extremely
vulnerable. Think carefully: is your child ready for this?
- Don’t be blind. Dagga is available on every
corner. Everyone thinks it’s harmless. But every child
is a potential addict and every person a possible dealer,
from your gardener to the friend your child has known
since nursery school.
- Expect the worst. Parents attending drug
support groups often discover for the first time that
up to 90 per cent of the kids in their neighbourhood
have experimented with drugs.
- Try to kep your children from
experimenting. Some people have no resistance
and can, like Francois, do so much neurological
damage to themselves in a period of months that
strong and sustained medication is their only hope
of recovery. Sustained treatment and antidepressants
might have saved Francois’ life. You don’t know until
it’s too late.
- Get the right treatment. If your child
develops a psychosis, psychiatric treatment and
psychological therapy are of the utmost importance.
There’s no time to waste with incompetent and
unqualified people posing as experts.
- Avoid triger to pics. Don’t discuss religious
or spiritual issues with someone in the throws of a
psychotic episode. They already believe they have
extraordinary powers and such conversations just
strengthen this conviction.
Can the brain
recover from the
Are some people more
susceptible to drugrelated
What causes someone
to believe he’s Christ?
And what’s the ‘magic’
in certain kinds of
Dr Lize Weich, lecturer
in substance disorders
By the Health24 team
Dagga-related brain damage
Dagga has various effects on the brain.
It can destroy the cells that control your shortterm
memory, interfere with your ability to
concentrate and simply make you stupid.
It can also lead to more serious problems, such
as hallucinations or a persecution complex.
The more often you smoke and the stronger
the substance you use, the greater the damage
to your brain. Scientists are not sure exactly
how long it takes for the brain to recover from
the damage caused by dagga – it could be
weeks or years.
The most commonly used dagga today is
10 times stronger than that used in the ’60s and,
contrary to popular opinion of that time, dagga
is definitely physically addictive.
If the plant grew in a humid environment,
the drug is more concentrated, hence the
popularity of so-called Durban Poison and
Manufactured from dried Psilocybe mushrooms,
magic mushrooms are commonly used as a
psychedelic at parties. They are particularly
popular in Europe, where some users grow and
dry the cubensis or Thai species themselves.
Soon after consumption you won’t have a clue
where you are. The drug causes confusion in the
brain: what you see and hear have no bearing
Users soon develop a resistance to the
drug and its psychedelic sound and colour
hallucinations and often have to avoid it for
three or four days before using it again.
Nasty side effects of magic mushrooms are
the nightmare flashbacks of the hallucinations.
These flashbacks can persist long after
stopping the drug.
The hallucinations and delusions of drug psychosis
Some drugs (like dagga), psychedelic substances
(like magic mushrooms, LSD and tik) and
amphetamine stimulants (speed) can make
you psychotic. This means you lose touch with
reality and live in your own delusional world.
The bigger the dose and the longer you take
the drug, the greater the chance you’ll develop
a mental disturbance. It’s thought the drugs
affect the brain by interfering with dopamine
transmitters but other neurotransmitters could
also be affected.
Drug-induced mental disturbances can be
short-lived (for example, the voices you hear
when you’re on tik or the persecution complex
you develop when high on dagga) and usually
disappear within hours. In some people,
however, psychotic effects and behaviour
persist for weeks.
Psychiatrists currently believe if a mental
disturbance doesn’t clear up within a month
after stopping the drug, you probably had a pre-existing
psychosis. Researchers are still uncertain
how long it should take for a drug-induced
psychosis to cease, whether or not it can be
cured in all cases and to what degree it causes
lasting brain damage.
People who are predisposed to drug psychosis
A psychosis is a mental condition in which
you live in your own delusional world and
some people have a genetic predisposition to
developing psychoses if they use drugs.
High-risk sufferers include young people,
people who don’t get enough sleep, those with
close relatives who suffer from schizophrenia
or other psychoses, and people who’ve had
previous psychotic episodes.
In some people, using drugs causes serious,
long-term mental disturbances. Once they’ve
experienced a drug-induced psychosis, a much
lower dose of the same drug has the same effect.
Understanding Francois’ behaviour
Francois’ behaviour in Holland and on his
journey home was that of someone who’d lost
touch with reality. He heard voices and had
Such behaviour appears psychotic and can be
brought on by drug use or possibly as a result
of an underlying bipolar disorder. His grandiose
thoughts, racing mind, energy and irritability
could also have been manic.
It seems Francois later lapsed into a postpsychotic
depression. Those who experience
similar trauma can recover – with long-term
psychiatric help and correctly prescribed
medication taken religiously.
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